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Size, cost of Pennsylvania's auto fleet criticized

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

HARRISBURG — More than 2,600 state employees, from Cabinet secretaries to lawmakers and midlevel bureaucrats, have taxpayer-paid cars they can take home, records show.

The vehicles are part of a state fleet estimated to be almost 16,000, with a cost to taxpayers of at least $72 million, when all vehicles are counted — from PennDOT's snowplows and heavy equipment to state police cruisers. The number was part of a 2009 audit by Auditor General Jack Wagner, whose cost figure covered everything related to vehicles: from purchase and maintenance to fuel and insurance. He said he suspects the number has gone up because of higher gasoline and diesel costs.

"How could one state government need 16,000 vehicles?" asked Joe Foytick, 81, a retired teacher from the Whitehall area. "What are they doing with all of them• The public doesn't know, and the public is paying for them."

State-paid cars were front and center last week after state police purchased four new Chevrolet sport utility vehicles for Gov. Tom Corbett of Shaler, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley of Bucks County, first lady Susan Corbett and Cawley's wife, Suzanne.

It was "hypocrisy at its worst" because Corbett campaigned last year on reducing the state vehicle fleet, said Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn of Millvale.

"Candidate Corbett wanted to cut the car fleet. It was in his commercials. Now Gov. Corbett has added four new vehicles," Burn said.

"The actions certainly don't match the rhetoric," said Chuck Ardo, former press secretary to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. "He made such an issue of it that people are somewhat taken aback."

It's ludicrous to suggest, as some critics have, that Corbett's actions belie his efforts to cut state spending, said Republican consultant Charlie Gerow. The cars are at best "symbolic," Gerow said.

"The governor has focused on real cuts, real savings" across state government, he said. "If this is the best the governor's opponents can come up with, they need to think again."

Corbett remains committed to reducing the fleet by 10 percent over the next four years and 20 percent overall, said press secretary Kevin Harley. Law enforcement vehicles are exempt, he said. An inventory and cost-effectiveness study are under way.

"This was never something we said would be done in the first five months," said Harley.

The initial focus for fleet reduction is on state-provided vehicles by employees who commute, he said.

State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, Corbett's appointee, said he decided to replace three older SUVs with high mileage for security reasons. The older SUV primarily used to transport the governor broke down three times this year, Noonan said.

"The governor never said a word. I never talked to him about it," Noonan said.

The purchases for $186,000 included two Chevrolet Suburbans and two Chevy Traverses.

"These are state police vehicles. They can only be driven by state police," Noonan said.

Wagner, a Democrat, does not begrudge the governor a new vehicle, even two, for a safe, secure ride. He questions the purchase of four.

"The ones replaced would be suitable for the lieutenant governor and the lieutenant governor's wife. In my mind, I don't see how you need four," said Wagner, who drives a state-paid 2005 Ford Explorer with 235,000 miles.

Harley said the decision was made by the state police commissioner "to safely and securely transport the governor, lieutenant governor and the first (and second) ladies."

Seventy of 253 state lawmakers use taxpayer-paid vehicles.

"Since news broke about the governor's new cars, everybody looks at it from this standpoint: that if you have a state car, you're taking money right out of the taxpayer's pocket," said Rep. Joe Preston, D-East Liberty, who drives a state-paid Dodge Charger that costs taxpayers $526 per month. "Frankly, I don't think it's accurate. If you look at the representatives using their own vehicles (and collecting mileage), that's thousands and thousands of dollars a year right in their pocket."

Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, who takes 51 cents per mile in reimbursement for driving his personal vehicle, acknowledged it likely would be cheaper for taxpayers if he used a state-paid vehicle.

But he said most of his constituents "don't want their lawmakers taking the perk of a state vehicle. They see it as a black-and-white issue. Just the fact of having a state car is too unpopular."

He is not profiting by collecting mileage, Costa said.

"I go through a set of tires every year. I get the oil changed every couple of months," Costa added. "I have gas to pay for, and 25,000 miles a year beats the crap out of your car. ... This isn't money in your pocket."

Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, said her taxpayer-financed 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee is "not some luxury vehicle or a perk."

"I can understand why people would be concerned with this, with the potential for abuse, but I don't live 15 minutes away from Harrisburg," Orie said. "I don't think it's a misuse of taxpayer money to help us cover the cost of travel."

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